It just feels right when a player hits a goal-scoring milestone using his signature move, doesn’t it?
Like Alex Ovechkin doing it with his patented you-know-it’s-coming-and-can’t-stop it one-timer from the left half wall.
Or Sidney Crosby using his best-in-a-generation backhander.
Or, as we saw Wednesday night at Scotiabank Arena: Auston Matthews fooling a goaltender with his electric, unpredictable-release wrist shot.
When the Toronto Maple Leafs center threaded a puck past Winnipeg goaltender Connor Hellebuyck in the first period of a Jets shootout win, it gave Matthews goal No. 30 on the season. Adding a second, on a one-timer to tie the game in the dying seconds of the third, gave him 31 on the year.
“He was just feeling it,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “Feeling it early and all throughout the game.”
After the two-goal effort, Matthews remains second in the NHL in goals, one behind Boston’s David Pastrnak. Matthews became the sixth Leaf to record four consecutive 30-goal seasons (Mats Sundin did it two separate times) – and first player in franchise history to open his career with four consecutive 30-goal seasons.
“I feel pretty fortunate to play with some really good players the past four years,” Matthews said. “We’ve had great teams, great guys, and a lot of credit goes to them night in and night out. It doesn’t really matter who you’re going to play with – you’re going to play with a pretty skilled and competitive guy. “
Most significantly, the goal made Matthews the first U.S.-born player to begin a career with four straight 30-goal efforts. Just as Patrick Kane, seven points away from 1,000, continues to build a case as the best most decorated U.S.-born player ever, Matthews, relative to age, is starting to look like he could become the best pure U.S.-born goal-scorer, with ‘U.S. born’ being the key term, as it disqualifies the Canadian-born U.S. citizen Brett Hull, owner of 741 goals and an 86-goal season.
With Hull factored out, you get four U.S-born players in the 500-goal club: Mike Modano, Keith Tkachuk, Jeremy Roenick and Joe Mullen. The only U.S.-born players with 50-goal seasons are Jimmy Carson, Kevin Stevens, Pat LaFontaine, Bobby Carpenter, Roenick, Tkachuk, John LeClair, Mullen and Modano. The single-season record is 55, shared by Carson and Stevens.
With that bushel of information in tow, let’s look at Matthews again. On top of the record for consecutive 30-goal seasons, his 31st goal in his 45th game puts him on pace for 56, which would break the single-season record for American-born NHLers. As Leafs captain John Tavares put it Wednesday, Matthews “has been playing like an MVP.” At 22, he’s rattled off the most even-strength goals in the NHL with 108 since debuting in 2016-17 – and that was in spite of (a) spending most of his career to date under suppressed ice time (including power play time) as a Mike Babcock pupil and (b) injuries, most notably to his shoulders, costing him 34 games between 2017-18 and 2018-19. A healthy Matthews freed up to play much more under new coach Sheldon Keefe is spreading his wings just in time to reach the age at which most star players achieve their career-best offensive numbers.
“I think a big part of (my success this year) is getting in my rhythm,” Matthews said. “The last few years I was dealing with injuries and stuff like that. So far, I’ve been healthy and just constantly playing and staying in a rhythm, and it helps quite a bit.”
Long story short: he’s as strong a bet as any player to lead the league in goals across the next five seasons or more. And, if he catches the right breaks in the health department, he’s on track to become the best U.S.-born goal scorer in history. It actually might not be close, judging by his per-game production relative to his peers so far. That’s the kind of hyperbolic talk that will ruffle the feathers of any fan bases, tired of Leaf hype, but, hey the numbers are the numbers.
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